Friday, October 9, 2015

My UMBC Story

Today, I went to the launch party for UMBC's 50 year anniversary celebration, which will take place on Sept. 19th of 2016. Today was the beginning of a year long campaign to get more alumni involved with the campus. UMBC has over 70,000 alum, only 20,000 of whom remain connected to the school. The goal over the next year is to get 10,000 more alumni involved with the university again. Part of the campaign asked us to tell our UMBC stories. I've been thinking about it all night - and this is my story.

When I was a senior in high school, I did NOT want to go to UMBC. I did not want to be in the suitcase school, I did not want to be so close to home, and I definitely did not want to go to a public university. I had my heart set on going to a private liberal arts school in Pennsylvania. I interviewed at primarily private liberal arts schools in PA, and I fell in love with one in particular - Ursinus College, where every student got a free laptop, and the Intervarsity student I had lunch with was very attractive (so, no good reasons, just greedy),

I visited UMBC three times, and I had a bad attitude about it every time, I remember walking around Patapsco dorm, being told that it was a typical freshman dorm, and thinking "this is not where I want to be". But I applied anyways, because it was free, and I applied for the CWIT (at the time, that stood for Center for Women in Information Technology) Scholarship, because I was an Asian kid and I applied for all the scholarships that I was told I had to apply for, and I applied for the Honors College, because I applied for the Honors College at every school. And that's when my UMBC story began to change.

I remember going to the CWIT Scholar Interview day. I wasn't particularly nervous, because I thought I didn't want to go to UMBC anyways. That day was the day that I met the professor that I would ultimately end up doing graduate research with, and the day I started to think that maybe I was wrong about UMBC. Dr. desJardins asked me the typical college interview question - "give me three words to describe yourself". I said two other words that I forget, and the word "sister". I described how I was the oldest in a family of nine (at the time, my youngest sister had just turned one), and how my entire life had been about being a part of communities. I described the communities of girls from summer camp and youth group at church (girls I'm still friends with today) and how my life had revolved around being "the big sister". I looked up to see the student interviewer's face glowing. She said, "you'll fit right in with CWIT". She described to me how CWIT called their monthly meetings "Family Meetings" and described the Big WIT/Little WIT program, where new CWIT scholars are assigned upper classmen mentors to offer them advice. After the interview day, one of the CWIT scholars showed us her room on the CWIT LLC (Living Learning Community). And I thought "hey, this dorm isn't so bad, and it's cool that they're all the same major". And my heart thawed a little bit towards UMBC.

Fast forward to Honors College Accepted Students day. I still have a crummy attitude, but we go to the event. I heard a panel of honors college students talking about their experiences in student leadership, their experiences with studying abroad, and their experiences in the Honors College freshman class, Honors Forum, and how Honors Forum helped them get into undergraduate research opportunities. I heard Dr. Simon Stacy, the then assistant director of the Honors College, say these words - "In the Honors College, we want you to be able to have conversations about things that interest you with people you can assume are also interested". Later, I heard a student address Dr. Stacey as "Simon", and I thought "Wow. I want this experience. I want this community of interested people, I want this comraderie with professors."

So when it came time for college decisions, I had boiled my choices down to Bucknell University (a private, liberal arts school in PA) and UMBC. I had scholarships for female engineering students at both universities, and I was in the honors college at both schools. I remember being in my room with my mom telling me to choose UMBC (which admittedly, was way cheaper) and my dad coming in and telling me to make my own choice, but that he thought the CWIT program would give me a more personalized experience - and I decided that yes, I was going to go to UMBC.

Fast forward through high school graduation and most of the summer to Honors Students Orientation Weekend. I met my Orientation roommate, a talkative Honors College student and Linehan Artist Scholar named Dianne. We didn't really spend much time together then, but Dianne and I interacted all throughout undergrad (we both had Sch- last names). I went to all the shows she did as a theater major, and she read my articles in the newspaper when I started writing for the paper my sophomore year (but we're getting ahead in the story). At that honors orientation, I met Lily and Stevo, two CWIT scholars who gave us homework for the CWIT summer retreat, which would be later that summer. And I met two of my three suitemates, Karen and Katrina.

A few weeks later, and all the CWIT kids were back at UMBC for the CWIT scholars summer retreat. We learned about being A students, we were told to always sit in the front row of classes, I met my freshman year RA (who I loved) and I was excited to hang out with those kids again when school started in a few weeks.

Freshman year started. Of 14 new CWIT students, only three of us didn't have boyfriends - me, Karen, and my soon-to-be best friend, Christina. Karen had friends from her high school, so Christina and I became fast friends. Because of Christina, I became friends with other people - she knocked on every door in the hall for dinner EVERY SINGLE NIGHT our entire freshman year. Without Christina, I would not have met anyone in my dorm in college. Christina and I also did our first undergraduate research experience together! On our floor, besides our excellent RA Tom, we had a great Welcome Week Leader (or Woolie), Andrew. Andrew was EXTREMELY memorable. He made us paint our faces and wear ninja headbands to welcome events. He'd sit in his dorm room and play the guitar with the door open, just inviting us in for conversation. He never wore shoes. And he also just happened to be the small group Bible study leader for Intervarsity Christian Fellowship in my dorm. Me and all of my suitemates all went to Bible study together. Our small group not only had dinner together, we had weekly fun nights, we had after-church lunch on Sundays - it was the best small group experience I have ever had. But my freshman year wasn't just centered around dorm life - I took a class from UMBC's recent Faculty-of-the-Year award winner, Dr. Tara Carpenter. She was an AMAZING Chem 101 teacher. I learned so much from her and had an excellent experience in my Chem study group and going to her office hours. She was just the first example of what UMBC professors could be for me. Anyways, those are just a few highlights of my freshman year at UMBC.

My sophomore year had a few highlights of it's own. I started meeting one-on-one with Andrew's girlfriend-now-wife Bethanie (the chapter president for Intervarsity). I got assigned an honors college advisor, Dr. Kelber-Kaye, who taught me a lot about gender equality issues, and who helped me (mostly by having opinions I disagreed with) really examine what I thought politically and personally about a lot of issues surrounding gender, race and politics. I took CS341H with Dr. Tim Oates, the professor I took classes with for five of my eight UMBC undergrad semesters (and TA'd for his class for my final undergrad semester). Dr. Oates is easily, without a doubt the best CS instructor I have ever had. I remember things I learned from his classes (even 341 several years ago) because of his teaching style. I also became better friends with Alec, the "guy CWIT scholar" in our graduating class. I pin-point 341H as the place where Alec and I became real friends. In spring of my sophomore year, I started writing for the technology section of the Retriever Weekly, which would have a major impact on my final years at college, and I took a UMBC Ballroom Dance class - where I met my husband. My sophomore year, CWIT really helped me out of the rut of "sophomore slump" and I began to appreciate my program for what it really was.

My junior year I became the president of the ballroom dance club, the section editor for the technology section of the retriever weekly (which allowed me to visit the university president in his office!), and a teaching assistant for the first time. I met my CWIT Industry Mentor, a female engineer from Lockheed Martin, and was completely, utterly in love with UMBC. This was the year that my friend Tom (not the RA, a different Tom) said "Emily, if there's such a thing as too much school spirit, you have it". This was the year I got into a comfortable community with the other Intervarsity upperclassmen in our apartments Bible study. This was the year Christina got me out of my goodie-two-shoes shell and got me to go to parties and actually enjoy myself. This was the year I felt confident about UMBC, and this was the year I started taking graduate school classes and officially enrolled in the BS/MS program.

My senior year, I gave a speech for CWIT's yearly scholar reception alongside my good friend Alec. I went to Andrew and Bethanie's wedding, where I cried because my "big sister" was marrying my "big brother" and I was thrilled (remember, I described myself as a sister at the start of this post). I took my final honors college class with Dr. Kelber Kaye and made her cry talking about how her classes had taken me full circle - I had started in an honors class with her and would finish in an honors class with her. I mentored my two little WITs (two of the most precious girls) and tried as much as I could to give back to the school that had given so generously to me. The school noticed - I won the CS department leadership award upon graduation for how much I had represented the department and for my participation in candidate interviews, most notably the interviews for the new dean of the college of engineering. After my senior year, I did one extra semester to finish my graduate school education, and I graduated from UMBC twice in the same year.

The great thing is, my UMBC story doesn't end there. This past summer, when I got married, my class valedictorian and fellow honors college member, Travis, came to see my wedding. Alec and Christina, my CWIT friends mentioned earlier in this post, were both IN the wedding (as DJ and bridesmaid). And of course, a whole table of Intervarsity kids were there, with big brother/big sister pair Andrew and Bethanie (who brought a board game to play at my wedding reception - something I absolutely loved). My little WIT Sophie was there too. I saw my good friends from Intervarsity, Alan and Kelsey, get married about a month after my own wedding. Today, I was back at UMBC for the UMBC 50 launch, and tomorrow I'll be back for the honors college reception. In two weeks, I'll be back for the CWIT Fall Networking event. One of my co-workers, Katherine, is serving as a CWIT industry mentor because I recommended it. I went from the kid who did not want to go to UMBC, ever, to the woman who loves her alma mater with a fierce passion, and who will do whatever it takes to make UMBC proud of her.

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